"American Idiot," the Green Day musical, screams rock 'n' roll: Sex, drugs and rebellion. Loud guitars, f-bombs and broken hearts. Energy, chaos and escape.
When it premiered on Broadway two years ago, "Idiot" was a new kind of rock musical. It uses a single album as its principal source, safety-pins together a sketchy story and closes its one act without a roaring finale. It's too noisy for grandparents and too profane for little kids but perfectly cool for Generation Xers, Millennials and baby-boomers who like middle-finger attitude with their rock.
Like "Rent" and "Movin' Out," "American Idiot" -- playing at the Orpheum through Sunday -- is a coming-of-age musical set in a specific era: America in the '00s, where three post-high-school suburban slackers dream of moving away. But Will gets his girlfriend pregnant and Tunny enlists to fight in Iraq, so Johnny, the rebel without a clue, heads solo to the big city, where he writes songs, falls in love and gets hooked on heroin.
That's the story director Michael Mayer ("Spring Awakening") has concocted with Green Day frontman/songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong. They've expanded Green Day's 13-song, 57-minute album "American Idiot" into a 21-song, 90-minute performance piece, with the addition of minimal dialogue and several tunes from "21st Century Breakdown," the band's 2009 followup to "Idiot."
While the musical follows the vague rock-opera plot of Armstrong's 2004 album, it feels way less political than that Bush-bashing record and Green Day's galvanizing American Idiot Tour, which is on my Top 10 list of all-time arena performances. Still, given the state of the economy and continuing wars, it feels contemporary.
While "Idiot" isn't as intoxicating and invigorating as a Green Day concert, it's about as exciting as ensemble rock 'n' roll gets on Broadway. Actually, the touring presentation is superior to the New York production. That show had a massive 45-foot-high wall, outfitted with four dozen TV monitors, as its backdrop. It was a stunningly powerful set that often distracted from the actors. At the Orpheum, the backdrop is half the size, but the stage feels almost claustrophobic, which sets the perfect mood.
The music -- running the gamut from punk rock to acoustic ballads, with occasional touches of strings -- adapts well to the stage. But since this is theater, the cast is more "Glee" than Green Day, enunciating clearly and mostly eschewing the slur and snarl of Armstrong, the snotty punk who became a mainstream star with the graduation day sing-along "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" -- used here as an encore -- and the 14-million-selling, Grammy-winning "Idiot."
Van Hughes plays dead-end Johnny with twitchy elan but his sweet tenor voice, like those of Jake Epstein (Will) and Scott J. Campbell (Tunny), might be better suited for "Jersey Boys." Gabrielle McClinton, as Johnny's love interest Whatsername, seems like the only true rocker in the cast when she cuts loose on "Letterbomb."
Steven Hoggett's kinetic choreography features two unusual pas de deux -- one with a man and a woman intertwined while flying through the air Peter Pan-style and the other with a couple entangled in the rubber tubing that junkies use to bind their arms for a fix.
With this kind of nervy staging, skimpy story and catchy music, "American Idiot" is -- to paraphrase "Good Riddance" -- something unpredictable, but in the end it's right.
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